A sermon for the seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

What do you suppose would happen If Jesus showed up at the Senate Prayer Breakfast this week? In person. Would they let him in? Do you think they’d even recognize him?

If he showed up looking like this, I think probably they’d have no trouble recognizing him. This is actually a detail from a larger picture, and in it he’s wearing a long tunic, which is pure white and perfectly clean, even though it’s dragging on the ground by about four inches. He has nice light brown hair, and actually has blue eyes, but I think the dead giveaway is the halo.

But what if he showed up looking like this guy? This is a forensic reconstruction that was done a few years ago, and it’s supposed to show what a typical Gallilean of Jesus’ time would look like, so it might be pretty close to what he really did look like. His hair’s a little untidy, and like anyone from that part of the world, he has dark skin and brown eyes. I suspect that if he showed up at the Capitol, they’d want to check this guy out pretty carefully before they let him go anywhere.

And what if he showed up looking like this? This is just a young guy in a suit. And when I first saw this, I thought, no, that couldn’t be Jesus, he’s too young. But think about it: he never really got out of his early 30s. If he were here on Earth today, why wouldn’t he put on a suit and tie and look like one of us? That’s exactly what he did the first time, after all. And if he did, I think we’d have an awfully hard time recognizing him. The only way to tell who he really was would be by how he acted, and how he used his authority.

Today’s readings are all about actions and authority. First we heard Paul’s description of the self-giving love of Jesus, the paradoxical way he manifested his authority through a series of actions that looked more like giving up authority. And then we witness this encounter between Jesus and the chief priests and elders at the temple in Jerusalem, where they challenged Jesus to name the source of his authority.

If Jesus came back, would he go to Washington? The District of Columbia in the 21st century does have some things in common with first-century Jerusalem. They’re both centers of power, and the Senate and the temple are both bases of operation for some of the power elite. The chief priests and elders of the first century were rich and powerful, the privileged class of their time and place. The chief priests had to be political operators, too. They served at the pleasure of Rome – and they knew they served the interests of Rome.

This encounter with the chief priests and elders takes place during Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem. It’s one of a series of challenges to his authority. They come to him while he’s teaching in the temple and challenge him to reveal the source of his authority to teach and heal. He counters with a question of his own, about John’s baptism. Was it from heaven, or simply human? They dodge his question because they’re afraid of how the crowd will react. They don’t answer his question, and he doesn’t answer theirs, either. He knows this is not going to be a meaningful dialogue.

Instead, he gives them a parable, a story about two sons who are sent by their father to work in the vineyard. One says yes, but he doesn’t go. The other says no, but then he changes his mind and does the work he was assigned. Maybe for us this calls to mind teenagers who have been given a chore they don’t want to do. The good one says yes right away, but never gets around to it. The one you love even though he’s trouble – that’s the one who tells you no right to your face, but in the end he’s the one who comes through for you.

But on that day in the temple, the point of the story was not about the habits of teenagers. It was a pointed commentary about who recognized Jesus’ authority, who believed and followed him. Not the religious leaders, but rather the outcasts of society. The prostitutes and tax collectors, who were scorned by respectable people – they were the ones who followed.

And the point of the story for us is, which of these examples do we want to follow? Why weren’t the chief priests and elders, with all their piety, able to see Jesus for who he really was? Maybe he didn’t look like the Messiah they were expecting. Or maybe his message didn’t suit their own agenda. Maybe they weren’t ready to give up any of their own power to follow this untidy yokel from Galilee.

So let’s go back to that Senate Prayer Breakfast. Imagine that Jesus has left his halo at home, that he’s shaved and combed his hair and put on a suit and tie instead of the long white tunic. Would we recognize him if we were there? Or do we have an agenda of our own that will keep us from seeing him for who he really is?

If he doesn’t look quite like the Jesus we were expecting, how will we know he’s the one?

There’s only one way, really – we’ll know him by what he says, and how he behaves. We’ll know him by his actions, and how he uses his authority. This Messiah demonstrates his power by empowering others. What Paul calls self-emptying we might name as servant leadership today.

Jesus said, “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.” [1]

He saw that the leader’s mission is to serve the people, not the other way around. To encourage them to grow, to do their best. To be their best.

This is a leader who seeks out the company of poor and marginalized people, not the rich and powerful. He tells his followers to pass by the position of honor at the table and take the lowest place instead. [2] He tells them that if they give a banquet, they’re supposed to “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.”[3]

If you want to know if this is the Messiah, ask yourself whose interests he looks out for. His own? The rich and powerful, or the poor and suffering? Does he demonstrate his moral authority by lifting up the highest values of his society? Does he model virtue, or does he tap into the ugliest aspects of our human nature?

Does he act from pride or ambition, or from love? Does his leadership promote healing and reconciliation, or hatred and violence? The first is the kind of leader Jesus was, in contrast to the chief priests whose power came out of collaboration with the Roman empire. They used fear to manipulate the crowds, and Jesus criticized them for placing heavy burdens on the shoulders of others, though they were unwilling to help anyone carry them. They thrived on celebrity, and on looking better than they really were. [4]

So the first question to us is, do we recognize him? And the second is, will we follow? Paul gives us this description of a self-giving, self-emptying Christ in this beautiful hymn of praise, but the praise is mixed with challenge: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,“[5] he says.

But what could that look like for us? How many of us would say that we are powerful? What kind of power do we have to give up? And how many of us would ever be willing to go that far in giving of ourselves?

Here’s my answer to that:

Each and every one of us has more power than we think. Way more power.

Do not underestimate yourself. Humility may be a virtue, but it’s not the same as denying your potential. Each and every one of us can demonstrate moral authority by the way we speak and act. Who do we speak up for? How quick are we to put other people down?

I saw a short item[6] on Facebook last week that puts this very concisely:

Imagine you are the only individual in the entire world to do an act of kindness today.

That’s how significant your act of kindness, however small or momentary, will truly be.

 

#BeKind #ChangetheWorld

Day by day, moment by moment, that is how we begin to give of ourselves. Step by step on that path we walk to follow Jesus. He’s the leader we’re meant to imitate, and it doesn’t take much to start – even prostitutes and tax collectors can do it. And what he showed us about power is that it doesn’t work the way we sometimes think it does.

We have way more power than we might think. We have the power to change the world.

Amen.

[1] Matthew 23:11-12

[2] Luke 14:8-11

[3] Luke 14:13

[4] Matthew 23:3b-7a

[5] Philippians 2:5

[6] K. Jeanne Person, Sept. 28, 2017